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#STBooks: Back to Ye Olde Bookshop, by Ben Williams

By Ben Williams for The Sunday Times

The buzz of the moment is that a tough character with a stern hand and strong opinions has taken the reins of South Africa’s most important book business, Exclusive Books. His name is Benjamin Trisk; he and his backers have bought EB, as those in the trade call the chain, from the company that publishes this newspaper.

Change has been a long time coming at EB. It’s seen a parade of managers take the pilot’s seat over the past year, while rumours about its fate swirled, but the best they could do was chart a wobbly holding pattern. Love of books and fealty to the EB brand kept many talented staff on board; still, Trisk will be operating a machine with plenty of recent dents and scratches.

He’s been quite vocal about where he intends to take it: back to the place it was when he was last in charge. Trisk was once Exclusive Books’ MD, circa 1980. Back then, booksellers didn’t mess around with products other than books. Back then, ebooks weren’t even a twinkle in Jeff Bezos’ eye (he was sixteen). Back then, PW Botha was prime minister, it was whispered you could get banned books under the counter at EB’s Hillbrow branch, and South Africa’s commercial sector was hand-glove white.

According to Trisk, in bookselling you can go home again.

Not home to censorship and apartheid, of course, but home to the place that, more than any other institution dreamt up by humankind, served to make our ideas real: the magical, pre-digital bookshop.

Given his reputation as a person of much energy and somewhat less patience, we should see the changes Trisk desires at EB soon: less floor space for “non-book product”, as the term for stationery, smartphone cases, mugs, toys and novelties has it; more “range” on the shelves, comprising long-tail titles that are sought by just a few readers a few times a year; and Western classics in steady supply – including Jane Austen, a name Trisk has mentioned as too often missing from among the spines in the shops that are now his.

Will he still sell ebooks? It’s uncertain. EB’s website currently boasts several hundred thousand of them, but Trisk is dubious as to the digital book’s staying power. “What you’re holding in your hand is the new microwave,” he said on the radio recently to a caller with a Kindle. By this, presumably, he meant a device that failed to cause the storm of disruption everyone predicted, and now plays second fiddle in the kitchen. We still roast turkeys in our ovens, after all. Perhaps, in twenty years, we will still make a feast of hardcovers and paperbacks à la Trisk.

EB’s retail footprint is shrinking: in recent years it’s closed almost ten stores. Its pillar product, the humble book, will soon be offered to a generation of millennials with hyper-connected habits. Will they put away their second-fiddle devices, enter that antique land, the bookshop, look on the works of Jane Austen, and call it home? It won’t take long to find out. – @benrwms


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